As Christians, we will suffer a number of indignities in life, some large and some small, some for the sake of the gospel, and some not. But what witnesses to the grace of God in our lives is not how much we suffer, but simply how we bear what suffering we have.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul’s opponents in Corinth probably look on him with some condescension: it’s unthinkable that anyone who supposedly has God’s favor could suffer so many hardships. In the face of such criticism, Paul takes a surprising tack. Rather than avoid the issue, he makes suffering his calling card. Okay, he seems to say, since you brought it up, let’s talk about suffering:
[A]s servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:4-10, NRSV)
It’s quite a catalog (and this is not the only one in the letter!). He begins in a general way with “afflictions, hardships, calamities,” and then gets down to cases: beatings (he’s had many, as have other apostles), imprisonments (e.g., the episode with Silas in Philippi, Acts 16:16-40); riots (Ephesus in particular, Acts 19:23-41). Then he describes the sheer physical demands of his apostolic calling: the hard work; the sleepless nights when you can’t stop thinking; not having the time or opportunity to eat.
But at the head of that list is the claim that it is through “great endurance,” not by impressive letters of commendation, that he commends himself and his ministry to them. If the Corinthians have thought that the quantity of Paul’s suffering was an issue, his response is that they’ve missed the point: it’s not about quantity, but quality.
Whatever befalls him, Paul faces it all through the power of God in the Holy Spirit. The NRSV above has “holiness of spirit” where most other translations have “the Holy Spirit.” But surely these are of a piece. The point is that the hand of God is demonstrated through Paul’s character in the face of suffering, including purity of conduct, spiritual understanding, longsuffering patience, kindness to others, genuine love, and consistent truth-telling.
God supplies him with “weapons of righteousness,” metaphorically, one for each hand (ninjas for Jesus?), so that he is fully equipped for every situation, whatever others may do, think, or say. And through it all, God’s triumph is clear. On the one hand, Paul says he has been treated as an impostor (probably a reference to the doubts about his apostleship), and seen as unknown, dying, punished, sorrowful, poor and having nothing. On the other hand, Paul’s attitude transcends all of this: he knows he is truly an apostle, knows that he has brought richness to the lives of others, and because of this, he rejoices always and sees himself as already possessing everything that matters. And oh, by the way — I’m still alive, aren’t I?
I have yet to suffer as Paul did. Frankly, I hope I never do. I believe that Paul would have said that only a few were called to be apostles and to suffer as they did; indeed, he seems to suggest in some places that he would take the sufferings of others on himself if he could. But again, the issue isn’t how much, but how. This isn’t a grumbling, grit-your-teeth, poor-me kind of suffering, but a clear witness to the inner graces bestowed by the Spirit.
That’s the confirmation of the genuineness of Paul’s calling.
Is it ours?